Modern Gladiators

Source: Véra Tsaritsyn [Lady Colin Campbell], ‘A Woman’s Walks. No. CXXXVIII. Modern Gladiators’, The World, 20 October 1897 pp. 26-27

Text: In spite of all that the humanitarians may say or the Peace Society may preach, the love of fighting will endure to the end of time to give savour to life and to prevent the human race from becoming plethorically inclined to “turn the other cheek to the smiter.” Humility may be praised as a Christian virtue; but it is not of any practical use to either private individuals or nations. Therefore anything that counteracts the doctrine of the Peace Society and helps to retain and foster the fighting spirit in the Anglo-Saxon race is to be approved; and it is with satisfaction that I note the number of people who are crowding into the theatre of the Aquarium to see the cinematograph version of the great fight between Corbett and Fitzsimmons, which took place last March in Carson City, Nevada.

It certainly was an admirable idea to have got up this historic encounter for the sake of the pictures to be obtained of it. It is given to comparatively few to see a real prize-fight; but these pictures put the P.R. “on tap,” as it were, for everybody. It is the real thing: the movements of the men, the surging of the crowd, the attentive ministrations of the backers and seconds, are all faithful represented; only it is so bowdlerised by the absence of colour and noise that the most super-sensitive person, male or female, can witness every details of the fight without a qualm. Evidently the fair sex appreciate such an opportunity, for there are plenty of those tilted “coster-girl’”hats adorned with ostrich feathers that would delight the heart of a “donah,” which are fashion’s decree for the moment, to be seen in the theatre. An elderly and ample lady comes in alone and occupies the next stall to us, with an air that fills us with the certainty that she knows all about the P.R. With a similar appearance of superior knowledge Mrs. Fitzsimmons must have watched the fray on the great occasion. The five-shilling “pit” (which are the lowest-priced seats for this peep-show) is soon filled up; the half-guinea stalls are not long behindhand; and the only part of the auditorium which remains partially empty is the back row of the stalls, which, for some mysterious reason, is thought to offer such exceptional advantages that the seats are priced at a guinea. The seats being exactly the same as the half-guinea abominations in clinging red velvet, and the point of view being precisely similar to that of the front row of the pit (which is only divided off by a rope), we ponder over the gullible snobbishness of the world, while a well-meaning but maddening lady bangs out “The Washington Post” out of an unwilling and suffering piano in the corner. We have nearly arrived at the point of adding our shrieks of exasperation to those of the tortured instrument when the show begins and the “Washington Post” is mercifully silenced.

We are first gratified with a little slice of statistics; the two miles of films on six reels, containing one hundred and sixty-five thousand pictures; the prize of 7000l. which went to the victor; the names of the referee, the timekeeper, and various other details, to which the audience listens with ill-concealed patience, being evidently of the opinion it would be best to “cut the cackle and come to the horses.” That consummation is at hand; the first picture is thrown upon the sheet, and, having wobbled about a little to find the centre of the canvas, settles down into an admirably distinct view of the platform, with the two champions wrapped in long ulsters, each surrounded by his backers. In the centre, below the platform, is the official timekeeper, Mr. Muldoon, who, with his back turned to us, keeps an unflinching watch on the chronometer in his hand. Beside him is Fitzsimmons’s trainer, with a face of the most brutal Irish type, who waves his white hat to the Cornishman ten seconds before the end of each round as a warning of the time he has in hand. The two combatants are pacing up and down, each at his side of the ring, with the nervous restlessness of wild animals. Presently they throw off their ulsters and appear in the simple garb of bathing drawers and shoes, to which are added the light boxing-gloves that only weigh five ounces the pair, and which, so far from being a mitigation of the blows, enable the men to hit very much harder, as they do not bark their knuckles. Both men are certainly splendid specimens of humanity. Corbett is by far the most attractive; good-looking, tall, beautifully proportioned, as light as a cat in his movements, and with a cheery smile which must have been a joy to his innumerable backers. Fitzsimmons is far more of the gorilla type than Corbett; he has the extraordinary breadth of shoulder, depth of chest, and abnormal length of arm which characterise the gorilla; and with this immense structural development of body, he is far lighter in build as regards his legs than his adversary. His face is of the regular pugilistic type, with indeterminate features that no amount of banging about could alter or make much impression upon; and his bald head makes him look a very great deal older than the boyish Corbett, though there is only the difference of four years between them. No; Fitzsimmons is certainly not as attractive as Corbett; but he awakens my warm approval and interest when he refuses to shake hands with the antagonist who sedulously defamed him and branded him as a coward before the fight came off. When one knows that each man came on to that platform with the pious intention of disabling, if not killing, his adversary in the shortest possible time, that there was bitter enmity of long standing between them which nothing but such a duel could assuage, the farce of a friendly hand-shake between them could only be regarded as sentimental “bunkum” to please the gallery; and I respect Fitzsimmons for refusing to be a party to such a thing.

Then the fight begins; and as it progresses one becomes more and more impressed by the curious silence which is so unnatural to such a scene of activity. The blows given and received lose half their significance, and the excitement of the crowd can only be guessed by the spasmodic movement of a line of spectators at the back of the stand perched like large black crows upon a rail against the sky above the sea of faces below. Corbett, active a s a cat, leads his opponent about the ring, Fitzsimmons seeming almost lethargic for the first six or seven rounds. Corbett follows his usual tactics of trying to tire out his opponent, and he lands many a blow on Fitzsimmons’ face, who takes them stoically and is evidently watching his opportunity for getting in one of those crushing pole-axe blows with which he had already killed two men, Jack Dempsey and Con Riordan, in previous fights. My ignorance of the rules of the rules of the P.R. is fairly complete, but I do no hesitate to say that the fight is very considerably spoiled by the constant “clinching” and wrestling of the two men. Boxing is one thing, wrestling is another; and these continual corps-à-corps are as great a mistake in a pugilistic encounter as they are in a fencing assault. They are worse, in fact, because in fencing the adversaries do not seek to take advantage of each other on separating from a corps-à-corps; whereas in the “break-aways” between Corbett and Fitzsimmons both men do their best to get in a blow if they possibly can. Corbett gains “first blood” in the fifth round, and unquestionably is quicker with his fists as well as more active on his legs than his opponent. In the sixth round there is so much actual wrestling that we are told that even the spectators expressed their disapproval. In this round Fitzsimmons drops on one knee under a blow, and the referee counts the fatal seconds, then of which mean victory to Corbett if Fitzsimmons is not on his legs before they run out; but it looks as if the Cornishman had made this feint to get his wind, for at the eighth second he rises as fresh as ever, though by now he is certainly somewhat the worse for wear, even with the bowdlerised rendering of the cinematograph and its aversion to details.

Between the rounds the men are petted and ministered to by their backers. Corbett is surrounded by a cloud of admirers; one rubs his legs, no doubt to keep the cramp out of his muscles; two others screen him from the sun by making a tent over his head with a blanket; others fan him, sponge his face, and “cosset” him generally, like a favourite sultana in a harem. At the word “Time!” he is always the first in the middle of the platform; but as the rounds go on the jaunty spring goes out of his step. The more Fitzsimmons gets knocked about, the more active he becomes; and the pace of the fight is certainly telling more on Corbett than on the Cornishman, in spite of the latter’s face being all dark and blurred from the punishment he is receiving. Both men are blowing hard when the thirteenth round arrives; but Corbett’s activity seems to return to him, and he fights quite beautifully. The cinematograph seems to share in the excitement of the audience, for it wobbles to such a degree that it is hardly possible to make out what the men are doing at times; and one’s head and eyes ache with the effort of watching the maddening jig of the pictures and trying to follow the details of the duel. Fortunately it steadies a little for the fourteenth round, which is also the last; for not many blows have been given and received when Fitzsimmons at last gets his opportunity, and a crushing blow over the heart sends the Californian on his knees. Even then he is a beautiful thing to see, as he crouches almost in the attitude of the Dying Gladiator, and struggles hard to rise before the fatal ten seconds have been counted. With his hand pressed over his heart he drags himself across the platform to the ropes, hoping to rise by their aid; but he reaches them just as the time of respite expires. The sound of the fated “Ten!” seems to galvanise Corbett out his agony of pain. He gets on his feet, and through the crowd of backers which have invaded the platform he rushes like a bull at Fitzsimmons, who, having amiably kicked his second out of the ring in the fulness of his victorious joy, is talking to his friends in one corner of the platform. As quick as lightning he is on his guard against Corbett’s blow; the second close round the latter and drag him away by sheer force of numbers. But Corbett is mad with natural rage and disappointment at having been half a second too late; again and again he breaks away from his captors and goes for his enemy. The crowd is by now nearly as made as he; it sways hither and thither over the platform with the two white figures and bare heads appearing every now and then in the midst, until finally Corbett is fairly overpowered, lifted off his feet, and carried off the platform. It is a splendid and dramatic end to an historic encounter; and one feels a thrill of sympathy for Corbett in losing his chance by half a second. Up to that fatal blow the battle was extraordinarily equal; and with such an amount of fighting power still in him, even after so terrible an experience, no one could claims for Fitzsimmons that he had fought Corbett “to a standstill.”

The two miles of pictures have taken an hour and a half to pass before our eyes; but though we leave the theatre with aching heads, we regret that so little that we determine to return as soon as we can, to witness again this combat of modern gladiators.

Comments: Lady Colin Campbell, born Gertrude Elizabeth Blood (1857-1911) was an Irish journalist, author and socialite. She wrote a regular column for The World entitled ‘A Woman’s Walks’, using the pseudonym Véra Tsaritsyn. The world heavyweight boxing championship between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons was held at Carson City, Nevada on 17 March 1897. The full fight was filmed by the Veriscope company using a 63mm-wide film format and was widely exhibited, the full film being 11,000 feet in length and lasting around an hour-and-a-half. It was shown at the Royal Aquarium theatre in Westminster, London from September 1897. The exhibition of the film was controversial, given the illegal or semi-illegal status of boxing in many territories. As the writer records, a notable feature of the film’s exhibition was the number of women who came to see it. Fitzsimmons had been accused of the manslaughter of boxer Con Riordan, his sparring partner, in 1894, but was acquitted. He also severely defeated Jack ‘Nonpareil’ Dempsey, but the latter died of tuberculosis in 1895 and not through a Fitzsimmons blow. ‘P.R.’ stands for ‘prize ring’.

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